In Depth Review: Final Fantasy Dawn of Souls: Final Fantasy [GBA]
That Final Fantasy has received a third American incarnation doesn't bother me. Nor does the fact that Final Fantasy contains none of the Active Time Battle system started in the series' fourth game, or that the Light Warriors are still basically mute, persona-less drones (in fact this type of main character never has bothered me in any game).
No, the fact about Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls - and subsequently Final Fantasy - is that it took this long for Nintendo and Square to kiss and make up to produce a portable version of this fantastic game, or that it never came out with a true portable iteration on the original Gameboy. Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Legend II, originally of the SaGa series, just didn't cut it, folks.
With my original NES review in mind, let's begin discussing what the Gameboy Advance iteration of Final Fantasy does right and what it does differently. The most obvious and striking thing is the visuals, which you should be familiar with if you played the Origins iteration on the Playstation. The character sprites, backgrounds and spell effects are all upgraded to a look similar to Final Fantasy V (that is, more colorful and vivid than Final Fantasy IV but not quite as striking as Final Fantasy VI). Everything comes especially sharp on the Gameboy Advance's smaller screen. The game is a pleasure to watch, and where dungeons in the NES version were so confusing to look at (Halo or Spiderman DS anyone?), this iteration -- like its Playstation cousin -- includes little landmarks (piles of rocks, rubble, etc.) so that at least you can tell where you've been already.
The music has been jammed into GBA format, and it sounds phenomenal given the capabilities of the system. I won't lie and tell you that you should be listening to the GBA soundtrack over the Playstation version's, but this is some of the finest use of the GBA sound chip yet. It's just as good as the fantastic Final Fantasy Tactics: Advance and Golden Sun soundtracks in terms of sound quality, and the familiar Final Fantasy NES tunes are back in a more likeable form. It's not that I disliked the NES tracks, but without the proper instrumental context given to them, they are harder to listen to than, say, tracks from a Contra or Mega Man soundtrack. The GBA version brings Uematsu-sama's tunes to life as joyfully as the Playstation did. The town theme is simply sublime, and the world map theme is as heroic as ever.
The translation has been even more beefed up than the Playstation version. Things about the story are explained much clearer. While the dialogue still contains this kind of, "Let's shovel information your way in an arbitrary fashion" feel to it, it sounds more like a person is explaining things to you rather than you reading things from a FAQ. People are given more personality, and Arylon the Dancer says more than just her name and occupation this time. A winner is you? I feel asleep? This building is about to explod? (All your ba- ok I won't go there...) Not here, no way. Thank heavens.
As far as gameplay and presentation are concerned, the core has remained the same but little details here and there have been altered to make the experience much more polished. Just like the Playstation version, the battle screen is condensed into a single action pane and menu pane instead of the strangely segmented group of windows found in the NES version. Battle, therefore, plays out like the FF's of new -- the character steps forward, the action is executed, and the damage is reported under the enemy. No cumbersome, pointless text boxes of information appearing under the battle pane. No slow, boggy execution. Everything is as crisp and clean as the SNES Final Fantasy games.
Also improved are things such as not being able to hit an enemy you specified once it has been eliminated. I never really hated this trait of the NES Final Fantasy, and its presence in Golden Sun didn't make me want to hurl, but I just simply think it follows simple logic that if the target you aimed to hit isn't there, then you seek out the next hostile being. (Why this logic hasn't been carried over to curing your own party members to this day is beyond me.) Soft, Life and Full-Life can be cast in battle, unlike the NES version, and spell names have been given the makeover found in the Playstation version, replacing Fire, Fir2 and Fir3 with Fire, Fira and Firaga. No longer do you put up with ALIT, no, you can cast NulShock and know immediately what it does (in thanks partially to the description bar that shows what every item, spell and weapon does). Hallulujah, items can be sorted and bought in bunches, and all of the submenus have been condensed into one friggin' screen. And -- this is perhaps my favorite change after the battles -- you can run your a$$ through the maps. The slow-pokey walking is gone. One thing worth mentioning is the save-anywhere ability, which lends heavily to the portability of the title. Yes, it makes the game so much easier... but seeing as this title was so challenging to begin with, I ended up glad the saving was included.
I could go on and on about the cosmetic and gameplay changes, but I think the real meat of the Dawn of Souls version of Final Fantasy lies in two things: the deep deep down core which remains almost unchanged, and the addition of the optional dungeons. Final Fantasy is still about scouring the world for prey to disembowel for experience points and level-ups. There's a backstory there, yes, you have to save the world from this crazy loop thing that I won't bother explaining, and it's pretty interesting to boot. But what kept me at this damn thing was knowing I needed ___ amount of gil to purchase the next powerful spell or piece of equipment, or that this boss monster totally completely absolutin'-tutely wiped the floor with my a$$ and put a spit-shine finish on it. Nothing is more satisfying in Final Fantasy than to get to that level where you can go up to the final boss, hack at it a couple of times, cast Curaga or Healaga maybe twice or thrice, and then down the ba$tard without even flinching. You wanna talk about marching through an RPG like a god? Achieve that status in Final Fantasy (especially the NES version, but it still holds true here), and you will know the truest meaning of satisfaction.
The optional dungeons really accentuate this feeling. I am about to spoil the sh1t out of them, so highlight this big empty gray space if you want to know, or ignore it if you don't.
Each elemental fiend has a dungeon associated with it. When you defeat the fiend, the dungeon becomes accessible. Each dungeon is themed with the element of the fiend, and features a set of floors that are randomized in terms of treasure chests and order. What that means is the second floor of the dungeon your first time around will be the seventh floor the next time you visit it, and the next time you visit it, treasure chests may be in different locations. Each dungeon features a number of boss characters, usually three or four. Some dungeons require you to exit the dungeon after defeating a boss, necessitating multiple visits. These dungeons can either be really challenging, or really frustrating. I found a healthy mix of both, and to be honest by the end of the third dungeon I just said eff it, screw the treasure chests, I want to beat the boss monsters. And these monsters are a mix of some of the later Final Fantasy's bosses. You'll find Scarmiglion, Rubicante, Cerberus, Gilgamesh -- and many of them are hard a$$ motherfckers. A few of them are harder than the four fiends and the final boss. Satisfaction? Beating O-ufcking-mega.
Shall I be negative? Sure. The dungeons from the original game are exactly the same, which means that you'll get the same loopy design with torrents of empty rooms, fake passages and dead ends. These dipsh1t things began to annoy me as I progressed through the game, but I have to say that better difficult and frustrating than too simple and straightforward. Nothing irks me more than an RPG that sacrifices the challenge of getting over frustrating hurdles for stupid dungeons and battles that simply leads to the next non-interactive wasteful and pretentious plot-point. (Ahem.) Still, you can see that this game could have used a little bit of the modern mentality when designing blocky floors full of square, identical, and empty rooms.
For me, it boiled down to this: I would have paid full price for a portable version of the Playstation Final Fantasy, with those awesome extra dungeons and bosses thrown in and the better translation. (Screw the cutscenes.) The fact that it comes packaged with another brilliant title (Final Fantasy 2) makes it all the more sweet. So regardless of whether FF2 ended up sucking or not, Final Fantasy alone makes this package well worth it. I recommend it quite highly, thank you very much.